The traces led them away from the road and into the forest. For the first hour, the two hunters didn’t see the wolf. Hector was beginning to think that it was hiding when they heard the sound of branches breaking and leaves rustling. They followed the sounds until they reached a clearing between the trees.
Hector nodded. He had seen it too. He made a gesture, and she rode in that direction. The wolf spotted her, but it also saw her lift her rifle and take aim. The animal turned around and bolted the other way.
Hector spurred his horse and galloped towards the werewolf. Afterwards, he’d admit to himself that it was possibly one of the most ridiculously foolhardy things that he had ever done, and something he would never have gotten away with if Stephan had still been alive. He threw himself from the saddle with a rope in his hands, landed across the wolf, and they both toppled over. Twigs and undergrowth snapped under them, and Hector clung to the wolf for his life. It was growling and snapping at him and fighting to get free. Normally he would put his hunting knife through the neck of a werewolf in this position. But somehow he managed to put the noose around its neck. And then he pulled as hard as he could.
The wolf rolled over, landed on top of him in an awkward position and proceeded to pull him across the ground. Hector gritted his teeth. He’d been dragged after a horse a couple of times, but never a werewolf. The sensation was not that different, but the outcome could prove very different if it stopped and turned to face him. This needed to work. He could sense Anita somewhere behind him with her rifle at the ready. The moment the werewolf turned around, she would shoot.
It felt like an eternity. Leaves and soil were like a whetstone against his knees and elbows. His hands were burning. The wolf dragged him along for several metres, but as luck would have it, it narrowly avoided a tree in its way and turned sharply. The rope snagged, and Hector rolled over so that he was sitting on his rear and pulled back, using the tree as leverage. The wolf’s movements became erratic. Its breathing was laboured, and finally it collapsed.
Anita jumped off her horse and came dashing with more rope. She knew better than to speak before they had secured the beast.
And how did you secure a werewolf? How did you tie it up? Anita fastened the rope around the wolf’s neck to the tree. If it moved more than a few hands’ widths from the trunk, the noose would tighten and cut off its breathing again. Together they lashed rope around the animal’s jaws too.
“Are you alright?” Anita asked when they had finished.
Hector nodded. He was still too out of breath to speak. His hands were red and blistered, and he had several small cuts on his face. One trouser leg had been torn, his knee was sore and bleeding, and he would probably get a handful of bruises to add to the tally in a few hours. But no serious injuries.
“How long …” The question was cut short when the werewolf moved. At first it kicked at nothing, and then it managed to get to its feet. When it spotted the two hunters, it lunged for them.
“Well, the rope worked,” Hector gasped. The werewolf made a strangled and pathetic sound and fell to the ground again. It tried once more and this time hard and long enough to cut off the air and make it collapse again.
“Efficient,” Anita said.
Hector rummaged the doctor’s bag. “Yes. But it’s not good for him in the long run.” He found a syringe and one of the glass bottles that he had salvaged. He had no idea how potent it was, but most painkillers were somewhat anaesthetic too. He walked up to the wolf and plunged the needle into its neck. When it woke up again, he was on his way out of reach again, but this time it stayed on the ground, uttering a feeble, whining sound.
Anita lowered her rifle again. “Hector,” she said. Blame.
“It seems to be fine,” he replied and ignored her tone. He stretched, shoulders popping.
“Yes, and what now? You have captured a werewolf. You have tied it up, tranquilised it, and we are in the middle of the woods.”
Hector nodded slowly. He had a plan. Didn’t he? A vague kind of plan at least. “We can either stay here until it’s not full moon anymore … Or we can … Make a cage of branches and put him in it …”
“That’s your plan? A cage of branches?” Anita’s cheeks flushed. She shook her head and looked away from him. “And then what? Cut down a tree and make wheels out of the trunk?”
“No …” Hector studied the wolf. It was still lying there. It seemed to be listening to them, but it may as well be a coincidence. Hector was not certain. He had never been this close to a werewolf. Not without fighting it. No, this was not thought through, but he refused to kill the man who had asked them for help. There was a monster on the ground, a monster who would tear him apart with its claws and teeth if it could. But in four days it would be a man.
“What are you thinking?”
“Go back to the farm where we spent last night. They must have a wagon that we can buy or borrow. I will watch the wolf and build a cage in the meantime.”
Anita laughed. She laughed so loudly and for so long that Hector was beginning to think that something was wrong. Then her laughter died. She looked at him. “You are serious. You are actually serious, aren’t you?”
“Of course I’m serious.” Hector crossed his arms. “What of it?”
“I can’t leave you in the woods with a werewolf.”
“Yes, you can. He won’t harm me.” Hector made a gesture towards the wolf. “He’s tied up. You saw what happened when he tried to get away.”
Finally Hector succeeded in talking Anita into carrying out his plan. She left with the promise that if anything happened to him, she would personally shoot him and the wolf and make a quilt out of their respective hides.
The werewolf growled.
“I’m trying to save your life,” Hector dismissed the complaints and begun to gather branches.
The cage was sturdy enough to hold a semi-tranquilised wolf, and Anita had procured a light wagon, the costs of which would make Hector’s aunt have a personal meeting with him. Again. The two hunters could not bring the wolf to human settlements, so they spent the next few days on the road with a werewolf who howled and growled and tried to attack them whenever they approached the cage and it was not asleep. They preferred when it slept. Every night they took turns keeping watch. It was safer that way.
Then, early in the morning on the fourth day, something happened.
The werewolf started moaning and howling more piercingly than it had done before. Both hunters instinctively reached out for their weapons. The horses raised their heads in alarm.
“What’s going on?” asked Anita. The wolf was squirming and writhing and seemed completely beside itself with pain.
“Have you ever seen a werewolf change?” asked Hector. His finger refused to leave the trigger.
“Neither have I,” Hector said, “but I think that’s what’s happening.”
It was. The wolf almost shrank in size. Its claws retracted and disappeared, and its snout became a nose. With every agonised cry and moan, it changed more and more, and the screams became too human to bear. The tail disappeared, and within a few moments, there was a naked man lying in the cage. He was curled up on his side, but as far as Hector could tell, he was young. Perhaps younger than Hector. Certainly, he had fewer scars, and all his bruises looked fresh.
Hector stepped closer to the cage. “Peter? Peter Hessen?”
The man did not react. If he was dead, Hector thought, they might as well have saved themselves all this trouble. There was a large gash on the man’s upper arm, but it was healing well. A werewolf bite no doubt.
“Doctor Hessen? Peter!”
Finally the man in the cage stirred. There was a red mark around his neck. He looked up at the two hunters, but his eyes did not seem to focus at all to begin with.
“Can you understand me? Can you talk?”
The naked man nodded slowly.
Hector stepped closer to open the cage.
“Hector,” Anita said, warningly, “Are you sure …”
“He’s human now. He isn’t going to bite me. Are you, doctor?”
The man shook his head.
Hector opened the cage. “Will you get a blanket?” he asked the other hunter over his shoulder.
She handed him one, and Hector put the blanket around the doctor’s shoulders. Then he gave the man a water flask.
“Thank you,” the doctor finally managed to say. His voice sounded like he had been screaming and crying for hours. “Peter Hessen.”
“My name is Hector,” Hector said, smiling.
“Anita,” said Anita.
“How long … I don’t …”
“We found you four days ago. As a wolf. Do you remember any of it?”
Peter shifted his gaze to his feet and shook his head slowly. “I was riding … Hoping to meet you. It was afternoon. I felt strange all day. Then came the pain. And …” He glanced back up at Hector with eyes that looked more than a deer’s than a wolf’s. “And now I’m here. You saved me.”
“It’s our job,” Hector said. “You’re safe now.”
Anita snorted. “Excuse me. I need to check on the horses.”
She didn’t. The horses were fine. But Hector was not going to discuss it with her. She was tired of his methods and his attitude. And then part of her was probably beginning to feel that it would have been wrong to kill the werewolf. The dilemma was starting to sink in.
“Have I … done something?” the doctor asked.
“You killed your horse, but we found you quickly, and there was no one else around.”
“Good. Good …” The doctor did not look as if he would be able to get to his feet. Hopefully he would be better soon. “I can’t thank you enough. What is going to happen now?”
“Now you need to get better. Drink and eat. Then we take you back with us to Frankfurt to our people.”
“And … What will they do to me?”
Hector smiled. No wonder the doctor was nervous. ”They won’t kill you. You are safe with us. If you had not turned back, we would have a problem, but you did, so it is fine.”
Peter nodded once more. “I don’t know … what to do. What I’m going to do. How I’ll avoid …”
“We don’t have any werewolves with us just now,” Hector explained, “but we had one working for us some years back. He was an ordinary man most of the time. As far as I know, he was locked up every month. Voluntarily. Those days he was not himself, and then he returned. Do you think you could live with that?”
“Yes. Yes, I think so,” came the reply.
“We are getting close to Frankfurt now. If we leave quickly, we can probably make it tonight.” Hector scratched the back of his head. He had a spare shirt with him, but apart from that, the doctor would have to make do with a blanket. “I’m afraid I didn’t bring any clothes …”
“Hector, was it?” The doctor smiled a tired smile. “If my biggest problem is making my entry into Frankfurt wrapped up in a blanket, I am much more lucky than I had thought.”
Hector laughed. The man had a point. Still, he must have been through hell. “I am sorry. For what you have been through,” he said. He wasn’t very good at this kind of conversation, but he did have a few years’ training in handling grieving people. This was a different from what he was used to, but shock and grief were shock and grief.
“Thank you,” said the doctor and pulled the blanket closer around his body.